Morris From America. We Are The Best!. Sing Street. All recent, beautiful coming-of-age stories about finding yourself through musical expression. What do they have to do with Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$? These three titles grow their ranks to four, one of them being this Jersey-born lyrical flamethrower. Talent so fierce trapped in a hopeless place, spit like venom into the faces of haters who’ve turned a pit stop into home-sweet-home. Jasper bottles small-town suffocation, big-city dreams and all-important individuality to create an easy-sippin’ cocktail that’ll have you trippin’ on empowered vibes. A killa’ on the mic and a hero to us all – albeit a bit expected, but hardly forgettable.
Danielle Macdonald strikes a thunderous performance as Patricia Dombrowski, an aspiring rapper who fronts as “Killa P.” Mother Barb (Bridget Everett) drinks away the sorrow of past decisions and Nana (Cathy Moriarty) suffers from Alzheimer’s, leaving Patti to pay bills with what little dough her bartending gigs collect. She scribbles lyrics at work, practices during chores, but come nightfall, Patti and partner-in-rhyme Hasheem (Siddharth Dhananjay) plot their overnight rise to infamy. That’s when they meet Bastard “The Antichrist” (Mamoudou Athie), an industrial metal musician with a custom-built recording studio (graveyard-adjacent, creepy but functional). Can Hasheem’s smooth croon, Bastard’s beats and Patti’s assassin-like flow produce a radio-worthy track? The world isn’t ready for PBNJ (their renegade squad).
Patti Cake$ embraces misfit indie comedics in a chase for marquee fame (this is a good thing). Patti intermittently fantasizes about being introduced by her rap idol – an “Emerald City” spitter who goes by O-Z (Sahr Ngaujah) – transporting herself to hazy green concert venues and other ludicrous swag-video fantasies. This is Patti’s escape from daily imprisonment, substituting poverty for roaring crowds and O-Z’s approval. Ludicrous, contact-high daydreams that PBNJ can never live up to. Reality is Patti, Bastard, Nana and Jheri (Hasheem’s nickname) debuting in a sweaty, PG-13 strip joint called Cheaters, ogled by pervy glances and a general sideshow appeal. There’s a lot to say about what “success” means and idolizing the greatest, along with chasing ambition for the right reasons. It’s a long, painful road to becoming the next O-Z – but what’s emulation worth when you can tell your own story?
On a deeper level, Jasper takes us inside a broken, crumbling household. Patti’s relationship with mother Brandi ranges from feelings of neglect to desired acceptance, teased by dagger-like glances when Brandi demands free shots at her daughter’s place of work. The same establishment she attends each night to get hammered, sing karaoke and either bring a random man home or have Patti hold her hair while she pukes in the bathroom. Bridget Everett is a ringer as Brandi, the almost-was rock n’ roller who numbs shattered opportunity with swigs of alcohol no matter the damage it causes. A personality so toxic it makes us yearn for redemption, counterbalanced by Patti’s constant attempts to shake her mother’s washed-up stupor.
Macdonald’s star-making role as Patti defines a bullied, underestimated “nobody” who pulls an 8 Mile Lite transformation despite pricks like Danny Bagadella (McCaul Lombardi) knocking her appearance. Pick a scene and she’s baring her soul in one way or another. Choking on discomfort when being called “Dumbo” by some wannabe white-boy goon squad, or destroying their frail male egos when scorching scoreboards with her return-fire rap disses. She may bleed like a human, but her lines are superhero flawless. As she says, “Droppin’ hot shit like a deuce in your jacuzzi.” Mad, MAD respect.
Patti’s friendship with Jheri – team Thick and Thin – makes for some beatboxing, rhythmic wordsmithing that’d bring a Def Jams competition down. From the moment Jheri MC’s her walk down a pharmacy aisle over the speaker system, chemistry burst from unlikely beginnings – very different from other supporting personalities. A meeting with O-Z reveals an ugly face, Nana’s grouchy support shrugs optimism, Bastard (Bob) becomes her pierce-lipped demonic prince – Macdonald’s performance adapts like a chameleon interaction by interaction. She’s a stage-crusher, wounded warrioress, individual powerhouse, all of it. Refusing to let a small-minded town of assholes and has-beens label her as worthless, fueled by the misconception that nothing gets better. Flippin’ birds and cussin’ in verses ‘cuz she’s from the Dirty Jerz – never to define, just motivate.
Geremy Jasper’s debut comes of age without any grace – because that’s how it happens. We’re forced to find ourselves against all odds on any given day. For Patti Dombrowski, it’s fighting “stigmatic” weight perceptions and her place in rap circles where angry men feel threatened. A death sentence for some, but Jasper intends only to inspire by pushing his titular bomb-dropper through sexist, abusive flames. Patti Cake$ is a feel-good freestyle phenom that heals through artistic passion and shrugs of wackness, indulgent in highs but not shying away from crushing lows. Like Patti says, the bigger the girl the more pain to hold – and if she can persevere, you can too. That, Mr. Jasper, is the magic formula we need more of on screen.
Patti Cake$ is more than another zany coming-of-age story, honest enough and wired to blaze a trail of individuality with Danielle Macdonald dropping the right beats.